THE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT this week hears a case about a group of tenured bench scientists at Tufts University Medical School who lost lab space and saw their salaries reduced when their individual fundraising efforts were not sufficient to hit newly imposed target levels. Already, a few have seen their pay cut by as much as 50 percent as they were reduced to half-time status. 

The case revolves around the nature of tenure at a research-oriented university, a special status awarded to those faculty who are adjudged by senior level faculty and administrative peers as having the requisite skills and qualities as researchers, teachers, and mentors to be awarded tenure and its appurtenant job and pay protections for the remainder of their work career.  

Tenure is not available to all faculty who work at colleges and universities. In fact, only about a quarter of faculty across the US hold full-time tenured positions—down from nearly 40 percent in 1987. 

At Tufts Medical School, an award of tenure is limited to faculty in its basic science departments, people whom the medical school believes will greatly help it to advance its overall academic image, and even its bank account both directly and indirectly through a successful faculty member’s pursuit of grants.  
In return, faculty researchers view the grant of tenure as a very important part of their compensation, so much so that obtaining it will often lead many individuals to decide to forego other job opportunities in return for a longer-term job commitment that carries with it some key protections tied to intellectual freedom and income security. So when faculty are recruited, and ultimately retained with a grant of tenure status, significant employment law and policy questions arise, as alleged in this case, when the university decided to make unilateral changes to those job and pay protections using newly imposed policies.

Key to the SJC’s ultimate decision will be its interpretation of what the Tufts tenure policy actually promises. The language in the Tufts Academic Freedom and Tenure Policy contains more or less the same language as what has been adopted by higher education across the country since it was first proposed by the American Association of University Professors in 1940: 

“Tenure is a means to certain ends, especially: (1) Freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) A sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability.” 

A lower court dismissed the case, noting that the new Tufts policies on lab space and compensation did not limit the academic freedom of faculty members to conduct research nor undercut their continuous employment—even if it was less than full time. 

There are a number of problems with this reasoning. For example, is it fair that a fully tenured professor could see their employment ratcheted back to half time at 50 percent of their prior salary? Doing so could possibly lead that person to be at a salary level that MIT researchers say could be less than a sustainable living wage for Massachusetts. If so, could that possibly satisfy the Tufts tenure policy definition which requires “a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability?”

There’s another broader concern. If tenure rights and protections for faculty who take jobs at colleges and universities can be unilaterally watered down after tenure has been granted so as to make the academic employment environment for top faculty less welcoming in our state, it could serve to chase those faculty members away from taking jobs here—hurting our stock of intellectual capital and with it our economy. 

One could also argue that letting the lower court dismissal stand could hinder the ability of faculty to employ their research skills freely in ways and in areas that do not always generate a lot of financial support, possibly in areas that are controversial or politically charged. 

Imagine a tenured Tufts basic scientist whose field is cellular aspects of human reproductive biology, who one day wakes up in a world where a conservative takeover of Congress leads to the passage of legislation that forbids the National Institutes of Health from providing any grant support to scientific research in this area. Likely, that researcher’s ability to continue research in this field could come to a halt at Tufts—as non-governmental grant support for such work may not provide sufficient overhead to help that researcher avoid being penalized for salary or lab space access under current Tufts policies. 

Many of the faculty who brought suit in this case were granted tenure many years ago and their hiring or tenure-granting letters never conditioned their pay based on any objective level of obtaining grant support. Their implied obligation was tied to only making continuing, dedicated efforts. Some of the plaintiffs, in fact, have continued to obtain some financial support for their work, but below target levels that the university mandates in its newly imposed policy. A few of the plaintiffs currently have almost no outside grant support. 

Possibly, the lower court judge hearing about the medical school’s financial challenges thought these sorts of policies were reasonable in that they at least allowed affected tenured faculty to continue to receive health benefits along with part-time pay; after all, in many other jobs, absent these sorts of tenure protections, people deemed no longer productive may have been shown the door long ago.  

But in casting its revised compensation policy net in this way, to me, Tufts is unfairly lumping those faculty who continue to make dedicated efforts to obtain grants in with those making only minimal efforts to obtain outside funding. Tufts has a remedy for this latter group, a tenure revocation policy which it could, or arguably should, try to employ.

Tufts Medical School is not the only school to be faced with the economic pressures of supporting its basic science research efforts and wanting to have a productive faculty that generates sufficient grant dollars to cover a large amount of the expense.

Dartmouth Medical School started to face similar challenges in the mid-1990s and decided to adopt a new tenure policy for its medical school that expressly made clear that salary guarantees for those awarded tenure were limited, and that one’s ability to obtain their full negotiated salary and accrued raises over time was contingent on raising sufficient outside funds.  

Dartmouth understood that it would be both unfair and likely illegal if it placed that new expectation on faculty it had granted tenure to previously. So the policy created with the new language was only forward looking for those newly granted tenure after the date of adoption. 

Tufts could adopt a similar forward-looking policy. It could also for all new hires place explicit language in the initial hiring letter or in tenure letters that makes clear that compensation is only guaranteed up to a certain level unless outside support is secured. 

For those bench scientists with tenure who no longer continue having grant success, I do not think that colleges and universities are under a continuing obligation to bear the expense of providing independent lab space for that individual. Other solutions, including sharing space in others’ labs, may be more economically viable. I also think that tenured faculty who are adjudged as not succeeding fully in all of their expected areas of work can have their salaries frozen or even modestly reduced under policies which are carefully crafted. 

And as noted above, for those faculty who are truly unable or unwilling to make credible efforts to carry out the duties that formed the tripartite basis for their tenure grant, the school ought to invoke its tenure revocation process. 

I am sympathetic to Tufts Medical School and its continuing challenges to try to get to break even in its financial operations. But to jettison an obligation that it agreed to because it bet on a horse that didn’t continue in its money-winning ways seems both unfair and bad public policy. The SJC should overturn the lower court’s grant of summary judgement on behalf of Tufts University in this case. 

Paul A. Hattis is a senior fellow at the Lown Institute. He retired in 2020 as associate director of the MPH program at Tufts Medical School.